Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Passing of Michael Kammen

Randall Stephens

Michael Kammen
It is with heavy hearts that historians, former students, and others are reporting on the death of the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Michael Kammen.  He leaves an enormous legacy as an inspiring teacher, mentor, and scholar.

H. Roger Segelken of the Cornell Chronicle writes that Kammen focused "his scholarship at first on the colonial period of American history."  He then "broadened his scope to include legal, cultural and social issues of American history in the 19th and 20th centuries." Kammen's Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (1991), says Segelken, "helped to create the field of memory studies."  (See a short biography of Kammen here.)

Indeed, Kammen won high praise as a writer. In a New York Times review of Mystic Chords of Memory Thomas Fleming conceded that "not everyone will agree with all his conclusions, but they are presented with superlative style laced with refreshing wit and a refusal to tolerate the occasional fools and scoundrels who populate this patriot's game." (Thomas Fleming, "The Past Is What Catches Up With Us," New York Times, January 12, 1992, BR11.)

To mark Kammen's passing, I post here a 2010 essay that he wrote for a Historically Speaking roundtable on teaching the art of writing. Here Kammen considers the examples set by historians Samuel Eliot Morison, Carl Becker, Barbara Tuchman, C. Vann Woodward, and others.

Michael Kammen, "Historians on Writing," Historically Speaking (January 2010)

Historians distinguish themselves in diverse ways, yet relatively few are remembered as gifted prose stylists, and fewer still have left us non-didactic missives with tips about the finer points of writing well. Following his retirement from Cornell in 1941, Carl Becker accepted a spring term appointment as Neilson Research Professor at Smith College. Early in 1942 he delivered a charming address in Northampton titled “The Art of Writing.” Although admired as one of the most enjoyable writers among historians in the United States, Becker’s witty homily for the young women that day concerned good writing in general, and his exemplars ranged widely. He cited Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, for example, because “the author’s intention was to achieve a humorous obscurity by writing nonsense. He had a genius for that sort of thing, so that, as one may say, he achieved obscurity with a clarity rarely if ever equaled before or since.”1
Carl Becker

Other notable historians have shared Becker’s belief that writing about the past is a form of art—or ideally, at least, ought to be. Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential address to the American Historical Association in 1912 capped the generations that so admired Francis Parkman and Henry Adams by designating his subject “History as Literature.” All too soon, however, TR’s highly idealized perspective seemed unattainable by the new professionals in academe. Even Becker swiftly became pessimistic about the prospects for historical “literature,” especially as he observed his guild developing in its formative years. He wrote candidly to a friend in 1915:

It would be possible to get perhaps 20 men who could write good history in a straightforward and readable manner; but if they should be expected to raise their work to the level of real literature—to the level of [J. R.] Green or Parkman, for example—I fear it can’t be done. Men of high literary talent unfortunately do not go in for the serious study of history very often; and the study of history, as conducted in our universities, is unfortunately not designed to develop such talent as exists. Besides, history is I should say one of the most difficult subjects in the world to make literature out of; I mean history in the general sense, as distinct from biography or the narrative of some particular episode.

Nevertheless, he went on to add: “Yet it is possible, and in my opinion highly desirable to come as near doing just that thing as possible. With all our busy activity history has less influence on the thought of our time than it had in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, and one principal reason is that it isn’t read.”2

A generation later Samuel Eliot Morison, who took Parkman as his model, lamented that American historians “have forgotten that there is an art of writing history,” and titled his homily “History as a Literary Art.” Subsequently Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., George Kennan, and C. Vann Woodward also provided instructive essays explaining how and why historical writing might flow in a creative manner that can engage the general reader.3

In the mid-1980s, when the Library of America produced stout volumes of works by Parkman and Adams, Woodward seized upon those occasions as opportunities to explain why these authors once enjoyed popular appeal and remained eminently worthy of visitation: narrative power, irony, subtlety, and [End Page 17] ambiguity in Parkman, wit, irony, humor, and a love of paradox in the case of Adams, whom Woodward called a “master of English prose.”4

J.H. Hexter devoted at least half a dozen droll essays to the challenges of Doing History, and the particular problems faced by academic historians. After describing just how arduous historical research can be, he turned with characteristic whimsy to the equally demanding challenge of first-rate prose.

[Once] the research ends, the working up of the evidence into a finished piece of history writing starts, and the historian at last tastes the pleasure of scholarly creation. Or does he? Well, if he has an aptitude at the management of evidence and a flare for vigorous prose, perhaps he does enjoy himself a good bit. But what if he has not? Then through sheet after sheet of manuscript, past twisted sentences, past contorted paragraphs, past one pitiful wreck of a chapter after another he drags the leaden weight of his club-footed prose. Let us draw a curtain to blot out this harrowing scene and turn to look at one of the fortunate few to whom the writing of a historical study is a pleasure of sorts. He writes the last word of his manuscript with a gay flourish—and he better had, because it is the last gay flourish he is going to be able to indulge in for quite a while. He has arrived at the grey morning-after of historical scholarship, the time of the katzenjammer with the old cigar butts and stale whisky of his recent intellectual binge still to be tidied up. He must reread the manuscript and then read the typescript and correct and revise as he reads.5

In a different essay honoring Garrett Mattingly, the historian most admired by Hexter, he addressed what he considered the false dichotomy between narrative and analytical history. Many in the academy regard the former as inferior because it only tells what but not how and why. Citing Renaissance Diplomacy (1955) by Mattingly as a prime example of ways to marry the two, Hexter declared that,

in the best writing of history, analysis and narrative do not stand over against each other in opposition and contradiction; nor do they merely supplement each other mechanically. They are organically integrated with each other; to separate them is not an act of classification but of amputation. It is an act the frequent performance of which stands a good chance of killing history altogether.6

Carl Becker concurred eloquently in his famous essay about Frederick Jackson Turner. He noted the need to interweave individuals and the interplay of social forces that are time-specific with “general notions” and conceptualizations that can provide explanatory power:

Well, the generalization spreads out in space, but how to get the wretched thing to move forward in time! The generalization, being timeless, will not move forward; and so the harassed historian, compelled to get on with the story, must return in some fashion to the individual, the concrete event, the “thin red line of heroes.” Employing these two methods, the humane historian will do his best to prevent them from beating each other to death within the covers of his book. But the strain is great.7

In Becker’s correspondence he often reflected upon the challenges of writing history well, especially in letters to Turner, his esteemed mentor, to Wallace Notestein, his sometime colleague at Cornell, and to Leo Gershoy, perhaps his favorite Ph.D. student. In one letter he even listed historians whose prose he especially admired.8 (My own favorites include Bernard DeVoto, Wallace Stegner, Barbara Tuchman, and Taylor Branch among nonacademics, and then Woodward, Hexter, Richard Hofstadter, and David Potter from the guild.)

Becker has a special place in my heart, and not just because he taught at Cornell. His clarity, pace, and subtle wit are especially appealing, but above all, perhaps, it is his gift for finding aphorisms that memorably epitomize the essence of a book. Best remembered, perhaps, is the end of the first chapter of his published dissertation on political parties in revolutionary New York, namely, that two questions determined party history from 1765 until 1776: “The first was the question of home rule; the second was the question, if we may so put it, of who should rule at home.” He achieved that effect again, even more pithily, in his most famous book, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers. Referring to the scientific orientation of the philosophes, Becker quipped that “having denatured God, they deified nature.”9

In the same book, published in 1932, Becker anticipated Raymond Williams’s and Daniel T. Rodgers’s influential works devoted to the importance of keywords in culture, society, and politics (1976 and 1987 respectively). Here is Becker’s essential passage from a fascinating study that acknowledges diachronic change even while insisting upon overlooked patterns of persistence and continuity.

In the thirteenth century the key words would no doubt be God, sin, grace, salvation, heaven, and the like; in the nineteenth century, matter, fact, matter-of-fact, evolution, progress; in the twentieth century, relativity, process, adjustment, function, complex. In the eighteenth century the words without which no enlightened person could reach a restful conclusion were nature, natural law, first cause, reason, sentiment, humanity, perfectibility (these last three being necessary only for the more tender-minded, perhaps).10

Like Woodward, Becker had a particular fondness for irony in historical writing. Close friends in the profession who misunderstood what he was up to in his memorable 1931 presidential address to the American Historical Association, “Everyman His Own Historian,” chastened him for “advocating the futility of historical research under a thin guise of irony.” Nonplussed and bemused, Becker defended himself by observing that “a writer has to be something of an exhibitionist if he expects to develop a method of expression which people can recognize as definitely & individually his.” Today we customarily refer to that as finding one’s own voice, as Stephen Pyne has mentioned.11

Four months before he died, Becker (an unpedantic pedagogue) provided a former Ph.D. student with a close reading of her new book manuscript. He urged particular attention to the transitions between chapters. “The great thing is,” he wrote, “never leave a reader wondering where he has been and is at the end of a chapter, or where he is or where he is going at the beginning of the next one. But of course in order to do this you must be yourself very sure where you are at all times, and why you are there and how you got there.” Although Becker is principally remembered as a brilliant writer, he was also a skilled and conscientious graduate teacher, and remained so long after his fledglings had left their nest in Ithaca.12


1.  First published in Phil L. Snyder, ed., Detachment and the Writing of History: Essays and Letters of Carl L. Becker (Cornell University Press, 1958), 125–26.

2.  Carl Becker to William B. Munro, July 23, 1915, in Michael Kammen, ed., What Is the Good of History? Selected Letters of Carl L. Becker, 1900–1945 (Cornell University Press, 1973), 33–34.

3.  Samuel Eliot Morison, “History as a Literary Art” (1946), reprinted in Morison, By Land and by Sea (Knopf, 1953), 289–298, the quotation at 289; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., “The Historian as Artist,” Atlantic Monthly 212 (July 1963): 35–40; George Kennan, “The Experience of Writing History,” Virginia Quarterly Review 36 (1960): 205–214; and C. Vann Woodward, The Future of the Past (Oxford University Press, 1989), 337–358.

4.  Woodward, Future of the Past, 340–48.

5.  J.H. Hexter, “The Historian and His Society,” in Hexter, Doing History (Indiana University Press, 1971), 93.

6.  J.H. Hexter, “Garrett Mattingly, Historian,” in ibid., 170.

7.  Carl Becker, “Frederick Jackson Turner” (1927), reprinted in Becker, Everyman His Own Historian (F. S. Crofts, 1935), 229.

8.  Kammen, ed., What Is the Good of History? 34.

9.  Carl Becker, The History of Political Parties in the Province of New York, 1760–1776 (University of Wisconsin Press, 1960), 22; Becker, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers (Yale University Press, 1932), 63.

10.  Becker, Heavenly City, 47.

11.  Carl Becker to William E. Dodd, Jan. 27, 1932, and Becker to Gershoy [spring 1932?], in Kammen, ed., What Is the Good of History? 156, 162.

12.  Carl Becker to Mildred J. Headings, Dec. 14, 1944, in ibid., 328–29 (italicized words underlined in the original); and see Burleigh Taylor Wilkins, Carl Becker: A Biographical Study in American Intellectual History (M.I.T. Press, 1961).

13.  For a convenient compilation of what many historians have written over the years, see A.S. Eisenstadt, ed., The Craft of American History: Selected Essays, 2 vols. (Harper & Row, 1966).

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